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QSR Feature
The Calm Before the Storm
High fructose corn syrup is found in soft drinks.

Whether or not there’s scientific proof to back up fears about high fructose corn syrup, consumers still hold the power to blackball the ingredient from menuboards. Those closest to the issue are denying a backlash is in the works, but what will you do when your customers come to you with questions?

The misconception about HFCS began with a 2004 paper by Drs. Barry Popkin and George Bray that suggested a link between the sweetener’s consumption and obesity. Four years and considerable mainstream media coverage later, consumers, fresh off their triumph over trans fats, are turning their attention to HFCS.

“There’s a desire, I think, by some to find a culprit,” says Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which has represented the corn refining industry since 1913. “As if only one can be found when in fact the age-old saying, ‘calories in, calories out’ remains true for the vast majority of Americans when it comes to obesity and overweight conditions.”

While exercise might still be the best way to fend off weight gain, simple offenders like carbs, fats, or sweeteners are sitting ducks to consumer advocacy groups looking to end the obesity epidemic. “I think people have a naturally suspicious attitude toward factory-made products and the harmfulness of HFCS has become an urban myth,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which advises consumers to use less of the sweetener—the same stance it takes on natural sugar. “If companies switch from HFCS to sugar there would be no health benefit whatsoever,” he says.

That’s because HFCS and sucrose (table sugar) contain virtually the same ratio of fructose to glucose, the two compounds that make up both sucrose and honey. HFCS was even granted the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) safe status in 1983 and again in 1996. Despite that fact, the co-owner of Jason’s Deli, Rusty Coco, is leading the industry charge to remove the product from menus. “Instead of educating [customers] and telling them it’s still caloric if it’s sucrose or corn syrup, we’d rather take the stuff out,” he says.

At press time the chain was only 16 menu items away from making the complete transformation and had turned its attention toward the more-difficult drink fountain. According to Coco, the beverage companies have done little to provide HFCS-free soft drinks to fast-food companies. “They don’t act like it’s on their radar,” he says. “They act like they’re going to have to wait until they’re pushed in a corner because of costs to deliver what’s really right for the consumer.”

According to American Beverage Association (ABA) spokeswoman Tracey Halliday, the organization is not funding or facilitating research into alternatives to HFCS. “HFCS has been approved by the FDA as a safe ingredient for use in foods and beverages and is found in a myriad of products as diverse as white bread, stuffing, ketchup, cereals, and nondiet beverages,” she says.

Despite getting attention from the likes of O magazine, which recently charged that HFCS-sweetened soft drinks contain carbonyls, a compound that contributes to diabetes, the CRA and the ABA believe that educating consumers on the similarities between sucrose and HFCS will be enough to prevent a backlash.

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